Published: 12 March 2020
Analyst(s): John Quaglietta, Deborah Alvord
COVID-19, also known as coronavirus, has become an epidemic disruption, impacting customer service and support delivery and affecting customers worldwide. Customer service and support leaders should use this appraisal to establish near- and long-term strategies for responding to potential impacts.
Continuity of operations is threatened by increased absenteeism from agents, management and support staff due to quarantines.
Unpredictable work conditions create pressure and demand on employees, fueling anxiety, morale and retention issues.
Limited information leads to customer uncertainty and confusion, increasing customer demand for answers from service and support.
Customer service and support leaders preparing business continuity plans focused on widespread infectious threats such as COVID-19 should:
Maintain continuity of business operations by completing a workforce planning assessment and determining your outsourcing and work-from-home options.
Keep quarantined employees engaged and productive by providing them with the opportunity to perform offline work and participate in online training.
Proactively notify customers of any status or policy changes caused by COVID-19 by utilizing inbound and outbound channels such as SMS, IVR and phone.
Alleviate employee anxiety and show compassion by offering counseling, flexible time off and sick leave policies.
While customer service and support leaders are familiar with business continuity and disaster recovery planning, pandemic planning is different because of its wider scope and the uncertainty of impact. The global and dynamic impact of events such as COVID-19 also require planning for longer recovery times and many scenarios; because pandemic events are so fluid, things can change quickly and without notice. Customer service and support leaders need well-developed but flexible plans to deal with COVID-19. These plans should address operational continuity, staff morale and customer demand.
In this research, we examine the event’s impact on three areas: customers, employees and the organization (see Figure 1). We also present near- and long-term actions for each. Engage with Gartner experts for support and recommendations on any of the below near- or long-term plans.
Continuity of operations in service and support organizations is largely delivered by agents, operations staff and management. Because service and support are labor-intensive, having large numbers of staff miss work due to pandemic-related issues can severely impact delivery. Delivery impairment has both short- and long-range effects on organizations’ ability to deliver service to customers and meet related service goals according to customer expectations.
In organizations that do not have work-from-home programs, service and support leaders should consider the following:
Work with service and support operations employees in conducting workforce planning to assess the organization’s risk profile and address potential staffing gaps in areas where the pandemic is located or predicted to spread. Rebalance staff to higher-priority customer issues.
If you currently outsource a portion or all of your service and support to areas impacted by COVID-19, partner with your outsourcing provider to shift interaction volumes to less affected locations.
Let staff know how potential resource shortage issues and unpredictable customer demand for service might impact their work.
If you offer digital self-service, aggressively promote digital channels to customers. You can use other communication channels and agents to educate customers on what they can do digitally.
Expedite any digital self-service use cases you have in the project pipeline, prioritizing those that require minimal time and effort. Additional digital self-service capabilities will be critical in helping you cope with any increases in service demand.
If you have work-from-home programs:
Assess whether remote staff have the training, tools and equipment to sustain themselves long-term should service leadership and operations be affected.
Use workforce management scheduling tactics, such as split or micro shifts, to handle increased volume spikes due to absenteeism.
Customer service and support leaders should develop long-term strategies for managing operations in the event of a pandemic threat. We recommend the following actions:
Work with your HR, IT, security and operations teams to establish a work-from-home program.
Develop outsourcing relationships if you do not have any. You may decide not to outsource, but having contacts on standby and understanding their capabilities will prove helpful.
Further your commitment to digital and self-service by making it a larger piece of your budget allocations.
Supplement your disaster response plan with an infectious disease outbreak plan, including responses to travel interruption, workplace safety procedures and social distancing plans. Implement both internally and with your business process outsourcing (BPO) service providers.
Agents worry not only about potentially contracting COVID-19 themselves but also about their families, friends and work colleagues. This concern creates personal and professional stress. Customer service and support leaders must prioritize the health and well-being of their staff to avoid long-term negative effects on employee morale and attrition.
Service and support leaders should consider the following near-term actions:
Partner with your HR counterparts to establish employee assistance, counseling and recovery programs. Show compassion during this time to help alleviate employee anxiety and fears.
Offer flexibility for time off and sick leave policies, especially for employees who may be subject to quarantine. Remind employees of these benefits to ease concerns of job loss due to virus-related absenteeism.
Set up a communication plan, including an emergency distribution list, to relay critical messages to employees via messaging (e.g., SMS, text) either during or outside work hours. Use other channels, such as email, for less critical communication.
Establish a resource center on your intranet or other employee-facing sites to reassure staff you are monitoring the situation by sharing the latest accurate information.
Provide details about the measures you are taking to help keep the workplace safe and clean, such as additional environmental cleanings and restrictions on nonemployee visitors. Educate staff on how to sustain healthy habits and good hygiene.
Develop an immediate response “care team” that represents a cross-section of agents, operations and management to listen to concerns and help identify, prioritize and respond to employee needs. This team, working together during this time, is also a great way to build camaraderie that will benefit the entire organization in the future.
Create remote options for employees in quarantine who may not be sick and want to work. For example, encourage continuous improvement training through your intranet or enable them to provide subject matter expertise to agents through IM or plan for knowledge base updates or social media posts.
Customer service and support leaders should establish programs that promote employee well-being, focus on employee engagement and include employees in business continuity and disaster recovery planning. For example:
Collaborate with employee groups to identify and resolve any gaps in future disease outbreak plans, including a plan for how to keep employees safe and address their needs.
Develop employee skills more broadly; cross-train and multiskill employees on contact types and channels so your service and support coverage model is overlapped.
Create a global crisis communication plan that could be deployed during future serious disasters to help maintain service and keep employees informed.
Communicating with customers during the life cycle of the pandemic is critical. It is important to consistently provide updates on developing events and how those events affect your ability to provide service and support. If customers should expect delays, letting them know in advance will go a long way in reducing unneeded contact volume. Use a multichannel strategy to communicate updates, process or policy changes, and changes in service status.
Service and support leaders should consider the following near-term actions:
Work with the corporate communication team to develop a consistent message. This should include how COVID-19 has affected the organization and what customers should expect going forward regarding the level of service and possible service restoration.
Create a centralized COVID-19 customer information resource center to house anticipated customer questions and identify known changes to process or service so agents can provide consistent and transparent responses. Communicate these responses both proactively and reactively using outbound messaging, IVR, your website, bots and agents.
Simulate various contact arrival patterns and traffic scenarios using different service levels, average handle time (AHT) and agent counts to understand the potential impact on the organization. Adjust staffing based on the outcomes of the various simulation exercises.
Develop playbooks for staff that illustrate how they should respond to changing operational conditions caused by COVID-19.
Use social media for broadcast alerts or updates.
Any long-term action should align with your overall strategy and commitments for customer engagement and the various channels you use. Service and support leaders are urged to adopt the following long-term actions:
Further your commitment to digital and self-service by making it a larger piece of your budget allocations. Having a robust digital and self-service strategy will help you address customer needs in unpredictable situations arising from COVID-19.
Develop a digital workplace strategy that includes collaboration applications, security controls, bring your own device (BYOD) programs and network support.
Identify alternative employment modes and digital technologies that can empower employees.
Implement proactive methods of customer engagement that can be used in emergency events.
Implement knowledge management solutions and practices that enable you to quickly distribute consistent messages to customers via customer service representatives.
©2020 Gartner, Inc. and/or its affiliates.
All rights reserved.
Gartner is a registered trademark of Gartner, Inc. and its affiliates.
This publication may not be reproduced or distributed in any form without Gartner’s prior written permission.
It consists of the opinions of Gartner’s research organization, which should not be construed as statements of fact.
While the information contained in this publication has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, Gartner disclaims all warranties as to the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of such information.
Although Gartner research may address legal and financial issues, Gartner does not provide legal or investment advice and its research should not be construed or used as such.
Your access and use of this publication are governed by Gartner’s Usage Policy.
Gartner prides itself on its reputation for independence and objectivity.
Its research is produced independently by its research organization without input or influence from any third party.
For further information, see
Guiding Principles on Independence and Objectivity.